When Cate Blanchet won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Blue Jasmine (2013), she became the fourth actress in four years to win the coveted award for playing a woman suffering from mental health issues. She joined Natalie Portman, who won for Black Swan (2010), Meryl Streep, who won for The Iron Lady (2011), and Jennifer Lawrence, who won for Silver Linings Playbook (2012).
It could be a coincidence, but four years in a row suggests something, doesn’t it?
During these years, Nicole Kidman was also nominated for Rabbit Hole (2010), Rooney Mara was nominated for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Michelle Williams was nominated for My Week with Marilyn (2011), Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for Amour (2012), and now Streep is again nominated for August: Osage County (2013). Each actress gave an Oscar nominated performance as a mentally ill character. So, what does the Academy find appealing about the testing of a woman’s sanity?
The cliché of “Oscar type” being a mentally unstable or handicapped character has been critiqued for a while. As Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) said crassly in Tropic Thunder (2008), “Never go full retard.” The Academy then nominated Downey for that performance (just to prove they have a sense of humor).
The Academy’s love for mental suffering hasn’t gone unnoticed. Award-winning men tend to triumph for mentally-handicapped performances: Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988); Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994); Tim Robbins in Mystic River (2003). The women, however, champion the mentally ill or unstable.
This trend could be based on the current mental health crisis, which films like Silver Linings Playbook open discussion about. On last year’s awards circuit, Lawrence said, “I think that there’s such a huge stigma over [mental illness] that I hope we can get rid of or help… I mean, people have diabetes or asthma and they have to take medication for it. But as soon as you have to take medication for your mind, there’s this instant stigma.”
Does this trend continue Hollywood’s old tradition of fighting for solid mental health legislation? Some of Hollywood’s finest have recently fought, including Cooper, Russell, Seth Rogen, and Glenn Close. Is making films with actresses as high-profile as Blanchett, Lawrence, Portman, or Streep, a platform used by Hollywood to request more recognition for this serious topic?
Now, this could be a likely answer for the trend among recent Best Lead Actress nominees and winners, but it doesn’t hurt to consider other options.
It could just be about the performance. The trend combines two of the Academy’s favorite “types:” the mental illness/handicap and the transformation. You see, the Academy loves full transformations, from Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993), to Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), to Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005), to Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
The performances awarded Best Lead Actress in the last four years intertwined mental illness with transformation. For some, the transformation was more positive than others, but each woman nonetheless transformed. These performers claw at your eyes as they grasp onto their sanity.
Mental health draws various reactions from every person. Meryl Streep said in an interview earlier this year, “As an actor, you’re supposed to want to go into the house of pain over and over and over again, but really it’s not something that’s fun.” These actors are invoking their characters’ minds. They transform and, if done well, their likelihood of a nomination is greatly improved.
Or, perhaps, returning to the reason for the recent trend, we should question why men are making films about mentally ill women. Films about women have adapted over the years, from Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas to the New Hollywood’s female personal pictures. These films show the adversities women faced in the decade of their making. In the late 1960s, for instance, the Film Brats took a stab at them: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969); Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973); Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974); Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974); William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973); Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976). These films were released amid second wave feminism and comment on debates of equal rights, the changing role of women in society, and of course, the fears these developments evoked in men.
If we consider the current trend in this cultural realm, then what are these films saying about women in society? What are Black Swan, The Iron Lady, Silver Linings Playbook, and Blue Jasmine alluding to? What do they say about women in the 2010s?
Black Swan shows the mental collapse of Nina (Natalie Portman), an up-and-coming New York ballerina. The film questions female relationships: the mother/daughter; peer envy; the old Swan/new Swan. The film also focused on denying and succumbing to sexual urges.
The Iron Lady tells the story of Margret Thatcher, a female world leader, slowing in old age from dementia. The film obviously comments on the role of a woman as a leader. A British production, to American audiences it might ask if Americans are ready for a female leader. (The film was not well-received by the American general public.)
Silver Linings Playbook shows the sexual side of mental health issues. If Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence) had grown up in the 1960s, she would’ve been friendly with the mental patients from Girl, Interrupted (1999). The film suggests that Tiffany’s sexuality is her mental illness.
Blue Jasmine takes the focus off of sexuality, which is interesting considering its roots. A Street Car Named Desire (1951), which Jasmine is updated from, was very much about sexuality, as the title implies. Yet, Jasmine French (Blanchett) doesn’t take much interest in sexuality. In fact, the only time her sexuality is directly referenced, she pulls uncomfortably away from her new beau, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard). Instead of looking at sexuality, Blue Jasmine targets the too commonly used female stereotype “The Trophy Wife,” and how the worst punishment for Jasmine would be living in a lower social class.
But this trend might not be related to a political statement at all. It might be the filmmakers showing audiences that mental health doesn’t choose victims based on class, power, fame, talents, or lack thereof. This trend might just be a mirror reflecting the image of our society and showing that mental health issues can happen to anyone, no matter their walk of life.
Of course, there are countless more factors that we could consider in order to try to understand the full reason for this trend. Sometimes, films grow clearer over time; so do these trends. We can make guesses now and debate theories about why the Academy has a thing for women who battle mental illness. I’m only just suggesting this is a trend. It’s something to ponder and keep an eye on. It’s a trend worth following.